Robot Ramblings

Everyone Plays a Roboticist on TV

If I worked on non-robotic technology, say high-speed fiber optic communication systems, I expect I would rarely get advice from lay people. It’s hard to imagine meeting a poet or a lawyer at a party, describing my work, and then having that person wax eloquent on why I should use a transimpedance as opposed to a high-impedance amplifier in my front-end receivers.

But many people seem perfectly comfortable advising roboticists on how to design robots. “Why don’t you just…” they begin. Robots, no doubt, appear much more approachable and understandable than other high-tech devices. Robots are engaging, they seem to have personalities, and they behave in ways analogous to people. Perhaps the thinking goes, “If robots behave like people maybe they can benefit from the same advice that would help a person.”

This presumed prowess is unfortunate because robots are every bit as subtle and intricate as other high-tech devices. The inner workings of robots are not intuitive; their design requires experience and expertise. Furthermore, the necessary balance between functionality and cost always proves a perplexingly difficult and nuanced tradeoff. Off the cuff analysis has little chance of hitting the mark. Unfamiliarity with these matters produces unrealistic expectations among novice robotics enthusiasts and many polite nods from more grizzled robotics practitioners.